The largest major survey of people who watch online child sexual abuse has found that one-third of respondents attempted to directly contact a child as a result of the illegal images they watched online.
The survey, by Protect Children, a Finnish human rights group, was posted on the “dark web” so users would find it while actively searching for illegal content of children. The analysis was based on more than 5,000 people who responded initially to the survey about why and how they watched children being abused online, although 10,000 responses have been received so far.
Another key finding was that 70% of those who answered said they first saw child sexual abuse material when they were under 18. Of those, 40% said they were under 13 when first exposed to illegal images of children.
More than 50% of those who admitted to watching online child abuse said they were not seeking these images out when they were first exposed to illegal material.
When asked what sort of material they looked for, 45% said it was girls between the ages of four and 13, while only 18% said they looked at boys. The others said they watched “sadistic and violent” material or images of toddlers.
Susie Hargreaves, chief executive of the Internet Watch Foundation, which works to remove illegal images from the web, said: “That a significant number of people say they first viewed harmful material when they were less than 13 years old is truly staggering.
“People think watching these videos is a victimless crime. But those are real children and they are having real and cruel sexual abuse inflicted upon them. On top of that, the victims have to live with the knowledge that images of them suffering are being shared again and again by predators.”
Protect Children wanted to learn about the habits of the growing number of people around the world who get sexual gratification from watching children being abused.
In order to reach offenders the questionnaire was placed on the dark web, so that users could fill it in without fear of being tracked by the police. It was tagged with code words usually used to mark child abuse material so that people would stumble across it while looking for illegal images and videos.
The charity also posted a separate survey asking questions for those who did not want to stop accessing images of child sexual abuse, which gathered an additional 3,000 answers.
Anna Ovaska, a legal specialist at Protect Children, said: “We started in December last year and expected, if we were lucky, 200 people might reply, but we have recently passed 10,000 replies [in total].
“We wrote the questionnaire in English and Spanish but we have had lengthy answers in other languages, including Russian, Arabic and Chinese. After eight months people are still answering. We realised people need to talk and that the survey was itself working as an intervention.”
Nina Vaaranen-Valkonen, the executive director of Protect Children and a psychotherapist who works with adults who have been sexually abused as children, said the charity would use the results to encourage offenders to change their behaviour.
“The unfortunate reality is that most of these individuals watching and sharing abusive material online will never be caught or arrested,” she said. “We needed insight into the thoughts, behaviours and emotions of users so that we can create self-help programmes.”
In anonymised quotes, offenders said they often felt shame and wished they could stop what they were doing, saying things like “this is the first time I have typed about a constant problem in my head”. Approximately half of the respondents have at some point experienced thoughts about self-harm or have attempted suicide in relation to watching child abuse.
The growth in online child abuse is enormous. In the UK alone about 850 people, nearly all men, are arrested every month for offences linked to online child abuse. The National Crime Agency (NCA) said the report findings match what they are seeing.
Sarah Blight, deputy director at the NCA said: “The NCA is seeing a direct link between online offending and contact abuse. In the UK we estimate that there are between 550,000 and 850,000 UK-based individuals posing various degrees of sexual risk to children – a figure which has grown in line with increased online activity.”
The report has raised vital questions for those trying to protect children. The majority of those who responded said that they had tried to stop watching, but had struggled.
Vaaranen-Valkonen said this shows that intervention can work: “Therapy can change behaviour. This is known and understood from decades of research. The scale of the online child abuse situation globally is a public health crisis and in answer it is vital to adopt a public health approach.”
• In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org